Igùn is ongoing research into a 17-year [1897-1914] artistic absence in Benin Kingdom. Through the use of Generative Adversarial Networks [GANs], Augmented Reality and 3D Printed sculptures, I attempt to reimagine unknown art objects from this period. And by unknown art objects, I mean that these objects are untraceable in catalogs, newspaper clippings, reports, ledgers, journals, books. Art historical literature does little more than index the violence that led to their absence. With this pointed observation, how might I examine an absence that others have overlooked? How might the scraps and silences in Art historical archives amplify such a reimagining?
My research began with a GAN model trained to synthesize bronze commemorative heads. Generative Adversarial Networks have proved effective at image generation tasks in various domains1, so I deemed it potent for generating images of what might have been created by Igùns2 [members of the bronze casting guild] during the 17-year artistic absence. I trained the GAN model on a dataset of looted Benin Bronzes, exclusively curated from Western Art Museums. Institutions such as the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Pitt Rivers Museum hold some of the largest collections of Benin Bronzes which were stolen during the 1897 British Punitive Expedition. In 1897, British colonizers long frustrated by the Oba’s [King] control of inland trade in Southern Nigeria, used the excuse of a “massacre” to mount a military assault against Benin. The aftermath of the expedition was defined by Oba [King] Ovonramwen’s exile, ushering in an interregnum that lasted from 1897 to 1914. This 17-year interregnum disrupted a long-standing system of art production and patronage in the kingdom. Benin Oral Historians note that in the absence of an Oba [also considered “the sole commissioner of the arts”], Bronze casters turned to subsistence farming for survival.
The official post-expedition reports found during my research refer to a surge in bronze casting due to increased colonial patronage, yet, there is a dearth of visual documentation to identify such objects. I surmise that there was minimal to no art production during the 17-year interregnum. So, I set out to explore, not to answer or resolve archival issues. How does one reimagine an absence entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible events that unleashed such absence? How can I tell the story of an Igún [Bronze caster], convey the Igùn’s desire to forge, no longer faithful to guild’s artistic protocols, and without an Oba’s permission? What variety and forms would impermissible bronze objects assume–if the Igún welcomed non-royal art patrons?
Drawing its inspiration from the Igùn Eronmwon [Guild of Bronze casters], my hope is that this project is respectful, while being untethered to the rules of the royal guild, and attends to the need of those at the margins of palace tradition, like myself. My social position as a non-royal, Benin indigene has been essential to understanding the limits of my GAN model, and to disordering the epistemic violence, often authorized as Art historical fact. This has necessitated a shift from my singular artistic vision to a collaborative project with elders in my community who have expressed interest in objects that narrate our stories outside of history, objects that might be deemed unfit because they were not stolen in 1897. How might we subvert archival authority, the limits it sets on what can be known about Benin bronzes, and whose perspective matters? What might be possible if I chose to decompose official narratives and recombine elements of a patriarchal art-making tradition? If instead a new recursive narrative allowed for the reimagining of objects that center the ordinary, non-royal Benin women, like myself?
Our oral tradition, mythology, praise songs, rituals and divination are rich with narratives of goddesses and priestesses whose radical, non-royal trajectories I hope to continue sharing through Igún.Through Augmented Reality [AR], my aim has been to reconstruct oral tradition, rituals and mythology from the Southern and Northern parts of Edo [formerly known as Benin Kingdom] to create objects inspired by non-royal Benin women.